ATHENS – Yorgos Pratanos spoke with The National Herald about his book The Unwanted Dead- The Shocking End of Zorba's Heretical Author, based on the little-known events following the death of Greek literary giant Nikos Kazantzakis. Pratanos, a Thessaloniki-born journalist who lives in Athens, felt compelled to tell the story in his debut novel, available on August 19 in English.
TNH: What inspired you to write the book?
Yorgos Pratanos: I wanted desperately to write about this embarrassing and therefore educational story. The events following Kazantzakis' death are not known to Greeks, and it is crucial to learn from our history, in order to avoid the same mistakes our ancestors did. This pattern, to treat our distinguished thinkers with such dishonor, even brutality, has its roots in antiquity. Socrates was sentenced to death, Themistocles died in exile, Miltiades died in prison, as did Phidias, Pythagoras died of starvation in exile, and so the list goes on and on. In school we are taught their brilliant achievements, but the teachers and the schoolbooks are silent about their end.
This shameful list becomes even longer as history unfolds: from the Byzantine Empire, to the Greek Revolution against the Ottoman Empire, to the early 1900s, and through the First and Second World Wars and the Civil War… There is a paragraph in the novel, when the young reporter, Freddy Germanos, reads Panagiotopoulos' (true) obituary in Eleftheria (Freedom) newspaper: “Most modern Greek monuments of great men are confessions of guilt, grand stones of regret.” Well, it took Panagiotopoulos only one sentence to describe a continuous Greek Drama, 2,500 years old.
So, I felt it was my duty, a Kazantzakian duty if you like, a service to the community, to research and write about this sad story. I remember the first time I heard about it, when I met with Helen Kazantzakis' stepson, Patroclos Stavrou. I was outraged by the vindictive rage of the Greek Church and the Greek State against a dead man, who happened to be one of the brightest spirits of contemporary Greek literature.
TNH: How long did it take from idea to realization?
YG: For nine months, I wrote for four hours per day. Although I was aware of Kazantzakis' life (I had conducted interviews with Helen Kazantzakis, Patroclos Stavrou, and Niki Stavrou - Helen's step-granddaughter), I had to research the details of these specific nine days after the author's passing. I went to Heraklion, Crete, to find witnesses to Kazantzakis' funeral, people who had lived through those strained days. Fortunately, I was able to talk with one significant protagonist of the story, who was very ill, but still decided to speak. He was a genuine hero, a legend, who was punished by the Greek State for conducting the funeral. He was the priest, Papa-Stavros Karpathiotakis. I sometimes wonder why Kazantzakis' compatriots haven't made a statue of him yet.
But I want to admit something… I have this feeling that the idea of writing about Kazantzakis was inside my head a long time ago, before I even realized I wanted to do it… I've been a Kazantzakis enthusiast since I was 12, when I read Zorba the Greek for the very first time.
TNH: What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book?
YG: Oh, I was stuck for about two weeks, not knowing how to connect the incidents that took place in Greece with Helen Kazantzakis who is one of the main characters. At first, I thought I should read Greek newspapers, but this wasn't historically accurate. Also, I didn't want to put a fictional hero who would create doubts as to which are the actual events, and which are fictional.
One night, after two weeks of disappointments, I was in bed and it struck me: I remembered that Freddy Germanos, the prolific journalist, and writer, made his first significant coverage on the occasion of Kazantzakis' funeral. The idea to have another renowned Greek as a hero fascinated me! I immediately got up and ran to check it out, as I was not so sure about the details! It was four in the morning when I opened the front door and shouted “Nai” (“Yes”), and immediately the dogs of the neighborhood joined in the celebrations! Then I light up a cigarette… It was like I just had had sex. But better!
I was so excited that I immediately began to write, and I kept writing until the next morning, when I had to go to work.
How did George Lois come to design the cover of the book?
YG: I am a big admirer of George Lois, the iconic Greek-American art director and author, since I was 19, when I read for the first time about the Esquire cover of Muhammad Ali - photographed as Saint Sebastian. In 2016, when this outstanding athlete passed, I was working as a deputy editor in the Greek edition of People magazine. I wanted to write about Ali, but not just a typical obituary. So, I had this crazy idea of asking George Lois to tell me the backstories of this historic cover. The idea was crazy because I was trying to reach him via e-mail. Not only was I not sure if he would be positive about the idea or when he would have answered – but I also had a pressing deadline. Fortunately, in a few moments, I had a response email from George saying he'd be thrilled to sit for that interview. And, as I suspected, he told me fascinating things and described to me the background story and the impact of this cover.
Two years later, I had another crazy idea: To ask George Lois to design the cover of The Unwanted Dead - The Shocking End of Zorba's Heretical Author. During these 24 months we exchanged some e-mails, nevertheless, this proposal had no financial or other incentive for him, as this was my first novel and I had no recognition whatsoever as a novelist. I remember I had written in the e-mail that “my financial state is even worse than Greece,” asking him to consider this in the asking fee. He replied to me -again- in a few minutes. “Oh George, this is a gift from me,” he replied, and then asked me the sizes of the cover. As soon as I read it, I was so shocked by his kindness, that I couldn't help the tears. I was so very touched by this generous gesture.
TNH: How does it feel seeing it in the English translation?
YG: Reading the translation for the first time, I was ecstatic. My words, my thoughts, put on paper in another language, the most spoken in the world. This is something beyond my dreams! Everything that has happened after the publication of the book in Greece is amazing. I got invited and met the then-President of the Hellenic Republic Prokopis Pavlopoulos, in the Presidential Palace. I got a phone call from a prominent Greek movie director to discuss the film potential of the book. And now, The Unwanted Dead is in English.
While I was reluctant at the idea of The Unwanted Dead going international - I know that the dreams we strive towards but don't experience turn out to be rather painful - it was Niki Stavrou, Helen Kazantzakis' step-granddaughter and godchild, who believed in the dynamic of the novel. Her support was invaluable for this wild journey to reach the United States. With the addition of Nicole Brison-Chraniotis on the team, they delivered a beautiful, world class translation. I was moved by their passion, and their will to put the standards so high. I am so proud of the wonderful people who stood by me, and, shoulder to shoulder, struggle with me.
The Unwanted Dead- The Shocking End of Zorba's Heretical Author by Yorgos Pratanos is available for pre-order online: https://www.blackrosewriting.com/historicaladventure/theunwanteddead.